[Avionics Magazine 11-16-2016] The FAA needs a new plan for incentivizing airspace users to equip their aircraft with necessary avionics to support the transformational Air Traffic Management (ATM) infrastructure being deployed under its NextGen National Airspace System (NAS) modernization program. According to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the agency’s plan to spend $5.7 billion to implement six core NextGen programs is at risk due to problems with timetables, cost estimates and low avionics equipage rates.
The DOT IG report identifies issues with two of the avionics equipage related programs under NextGen deployment, including Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) Out and Data Comm programs. Each program faces a unique set of deployment cost, timetable, technological and equipage issues going forward.
FAA NextGen Data Communications air traffic control En Route simulators. Photo: FAA.
The FAA’s ADS-B program currently focuses on the ADS-B Out capability, which the agency requires to be installed on aircraft operating in Class A-E airspace by Jan. 1, 2020. Ground infrastructure required to support ADS-B was completed in 2014, however, the infrastructure only becomes beneficial to managing air traffic when and if critical mass of registered aircraft add ADS-B transponders, wiring and position sources to their aircraft. OIG’s report states that considerable uncertainty remains as to whether all of the aircraft that need avionics upgrades to meet the Jan. 1, 2020 mandate will actually be ready in time.
According to the latest reported data from the FAA, only 651 out of approximately 7,000 commercial aircraft (about 9 percent) and 15,657 of 160,000 general aviation aircraft (about 10 percent) have purchased and installed ADS-B avionics. The agency has also provided information indicating that almost 5,000 commercial and general aviation aircraft that have equipped with ADS-B cannot properly broadcast the ADS-B signal as required.
“FAA disagreed with our statement that considerable uncertainty remains as to whether airlines will meet the 2020 mandate for equipping with ADS-B Out. While we acknowledge that most airlines have developed plans to comply with the mandate, a number of obstacles remain. These include a limited number of certified avionics as well as limited installation facility capacity to install the avionics,” the report says.
In June 2016, the agency announced a $500 rebate to incentivize ADS-B equipage for up to 20,000 piston engine general aviation aircraft. The FAA has also entered into several agreements with U.S. carriers to develop procedures and validate benefits for ADS-B Out and In applications. The agency also provided $49 million to purchase and install ADS-B avionics on a limited number of commercial aircraft. But considering the low rate of equipage that still exists, it is unlikely the number of commercial or general aviation aircraft that need upgrades will get them by the deadline.
There are also major challenges associated with ADS-B In, considering the FAA has not yet been able to quantify what benefits can be derived for aircraft equipped with ADS-B in avionics.
“Specifically, FAA has not yet finalized requirements for the use of ADS-B In capabilities and is still developing procedures necessary to enable pilots and controllers to use ADS-B In to improve capacity in congested airspace. It is unclear if and at what pace FAA will seek to advance ADS-B In,” the report says.
During Avionics Magazine’s Avionics for NextGen conference
earlier this year, United Airlines Chief Technical Pilot Rocky Stone gave a presentation analyzing the passenger carrier’s use of ADS-B In for In-Trail Procedures (ITP). The FAA states that the use of ITP can enable pilots of two ADS-B In equipped aircraft flying on the same track to navigate to more optimal flight levels as desired. Less spacing between the aircraft than controllers would allow using procedural separation standards can be achieved in this way.
Stone’s presentation noted that United has ITP installed on its Boeing 747-400s, and more than 16,000 flights of trial data measured the benefits of ADS-B ITP equipped flights to be a reduced fuel burn of up to 521 pounds of fuel saved on trans-Pacific flights and up to 670 pounds of fuel saved on trans Atlantic flights.
However, a December 2015 FAA report on ADS-B ITP states that these benefits have “significant standard deviations reflecting variability of the results which should be taken into account when applying these conclusions to other fleets.” Therefore more analysis is needed as to measure expected benefits and standardize the use of ADS-B In for ITP and other flight operational benefits.
Data Comm is one of the FAA’s four identified priority initiatives of its NextGen National Airspace System (NAS) modernization programs, enabling a direct link between ground automation and flight deck avionics for safety-of-flight clearances, instructions, traffic-flow management, flight crew requests and reports. Instead of handling these actions solely through voice communications in the domestic airspace, the Data Comm technology the FAA is deploying at airports throughout the NAS allows pilots and controllers to communicate via text messages between ground-automation systems and aircraft Flight Management Systems (FMS).
Under the NextGen program, the FAA has agreed to provide $80 million to equip 1,900 aircraft with Data Comm avionics by 2019. A large proportion of the air transport and business aviation fleet are technologically ready for Data Comm because the aircraft already use Future Air Navigation System (FANS) avionics. However, OIG’s report notes some issues still remain.
“FAA cannot realize the anticipated benefits for Data Comm, for which the majority of the benefits are projected to be in the high-altitude environment, until the agency modifies [En Route Automation Modernization] ERAM to display properly equipped aircraft on controllers’ scopes as well as to send and receive digital messages. This effort is not expected to be completed until 2019,” the report says.
To remedy these and other cost and timeline issues associated with NextGen, OIG has recommended that the FAA implement agency-wide guidance for a “uniform approach to segmentation that provides a common format to aid the management of multiple, complex, and interrelated programs needed to achieve NextGen capabilities for transforming the NAS.”